Chatham Selectmen Abolish Charter Review Committee

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Board of Selectmen News

Gavel.

CHATHAM In response to what they say are problems with the whole group, not any individual member, selectmen Monday voted to abolish the embattled charter review committee.

The 4-1 vote included the revocation of all committee members’ appointments. The board of selectmen stopped short of considering a measure to appoint itself as the new charter review committee.

“The issues that are at hand with this committee aren’t getting resolved,” Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis said. Selectmen pointed to a lack of civility in the CRC’s discussions, and dialogue which they said was disrespectful to fellow board members and to members of the public. Board members also said it appears that the CRC was poised to recommend charter changes without having fully researched or vetted the proposals.

The concerns came to light following the committee's June 18 meeting, after which there was a confrontation between CRC member Seth Taylor and property owner George Myers, a frequent critic of the committee. After the meeting had been adjourned, Myers approached the podium and said he wanted to continue to talk about alleged Open Meeting Law violations, and Taylor and others told him that to continue would violate the law. Taylor, a former selectman, allegedly charged toward Myers, yelled at him to "shut up" and grabbed papers on the podium. Following the incident, several members of the committee threatened to resign unless selectmen took action.

CRC member Gloria Freeman urged selectmen to hold Monday’s discussion in executive session, saying it requires a discussion about the professional competence and character of members of the committee. Davis declined to hold the session behind closed doors, and restricted discussion to the committee’s effectiveness as a whole.

Davis said she met with CRC Chairman Elizabeth Taylor—Seth Taylor’s wife—and offered to host a joint meeting of both boards, with a mediator, in an effort to resolve concerns.

“Ultimately the chair declined that offer,” Davis said.

“My memory of the meeting with you, Chairman Davis, was very different from your memory,” Mrs. Taylor said. “I never declined mediation.” Mrs. Taylor said she was called upon to lead a committee with “two disparate subsets” of views. “I was determined to make this committee work,” she said. The CRC has passionate, diverse views on various topics, and had “healthy discussions,” she noted. “I think the committee, with all of its faults, is completing its required work,” she said.

Mrs. Taylor asked whether selectmen were proposing to disband the committee they say is dysfunctional, “or is it about silencing members of the public who believe the charter can be improved?”

Selectman Cory Metters, the lone dissenter in Monday’s vote, said it was premature to scrap the committee before the boards could meet face-to-face. Metters said he believes that once selectmen appoint members to a committee, they should allow that committee to work freely without micro-management. Closing down the CRC represents “a very slippery slope,” Metters said.

Board member Peter Cocolis said he would not dwell on the June 18 incident except to say that it is “symptomatic, in some ways, of the way this committee operates.” Some members of the committee have violated the published code of conduct in the town’s committee handbook, he said, and it is unlikely that there will be a return to civil discourse on the CRC, he said.

“This is not national politics. This is trying to get something done in our town,” he said.

The CRC has not made impressive progress, Selectman Jeffrey Dykens noted.

“They’ve been a year plus working on this charter, and they’re on Section 4,” he said. The adage applies that, if something isn’t broken, it doesn’t need fixing, he said. “I don’t believe this charter’s broken.”

Seth Taylor said while the selectmen argue that the CRC’s deliberative process is failing, they aren’t charged with imposing any such process on the committees they appoint.

“Pursuant to our town government, committees function independently of direction that is not specifically prescribed in their charge. And that happens for all committees,” Mr. Taylor said.

In addition to Mr. Taylor and Gloria Freeman, other members of the CRC argued against the dissolution of their committee. Stuart Smith argued that the charter review process was designed to be politically insulated, since the committee makes its recommendations directly to town meeting. Smith said he believes “it’s vitally important that the committee be allowed to continue,” and said none of the charter changes discussed so far are “so draconian that anybody needs to be afraid of them.” As for the conduct at the meeting, Smith said he has seen much more spirited debates in the past. “This is benign,” he said, though he noted that he was not present at the June 18 meeting.

“There is nothing benign about the behavior of this committee,” CRC member Rick Leavitt said. If the CRC’s standards of civility are a model for other committees, “the entire town is at risk,” he said. Leavitt was joined by CRC members Tom Geagan, George Lane and John Bendas in urging selectmen to disband the committee. CRC member Stephen Buckley argued that the committee should be left intact long enough for its members to elect a new chairman, “to allow the committee to self-right.”

A majority of selectmen disagreed, and on a motion by Dean Nicastro, the board voted to revoke the appointments of all CRC members immediately and abolish the committee, pursuant to section 5-1(B) of the home rule charter.

Nicastro argued that the source of the problem is Section 8-2 of the charter, which requires that the document be revised at least once every five years. That schedule is far too frequent, since the new review committee was formed just two years after the previous charter update was ratified. When it came to finding volunteers for the CRC, “we had to beg, beg and beg” and then accept those who replied. “We did not have choices. We begged and got no one. That says something about what’s wrong with Section 8-2,” Nicastro said.

Once the committee had been abolished, Nicastro proposed that selectmen appoint themselves as the new CRC, but withdrew his motion under advice from town counsel. “I would suggest a little reflection might be in order,” counsel Patrick Costello said. It might be advantageous for the board to include appointing a few outsiders to a new committee, he said.

Instead, Nicastro asked Davis to include an agenda item to allow the selectmen to consider proposing a petition article for an upcoming town meeting with a single amendment to the town charter, revising Section 8-2 to require less frequent charter reviews. With town meeting approval, such a strategy would allow selectmen—or any citizen—to change the charter without need for a CRC.